Orders of the Day — Foreign Affairs and Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:11 pm on 27th November 1998.

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Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence 2:11 pm, 27th November 1998

I am grateful for the opportunity to close this important debate. Rightly, foreign affairs and defence remain at the forefront of the business of the House and of the country. It is gratifying that so many hon. Members have been here on a Friday afternoon to take part in such a debate. Many points have been raised, and I shall shortly deal with some of the more detailed ones; first, I should outline the Government's position on some of the major defence issues that we face.

Since the House debated the strategic defence review, events in Iraq and the Balkans have underlined again the robustness and validity of our conclusions. The most recent crisis in the Gulf is yet further evidence of the importance of Britain being able and willing to deal with risks to international peace and stability. We have shown again that we are not willing to stand idly by, and that we increasingly have the military capabilities to enable us to make a real contribution to dealing with security crises.

As one would expect, many hon. Members have mentioned the Iraq crisis. Saddam Hussein's efforts to flout the United Nations and the international community have been defeated. He has been faced down. No concessions of any sort were offered to him in exchange. There was no negotiation of any sort; nor will there be in the future.

Saddam's capitulation and agreement to resume unconditional and full co-operation with UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency came just in time. British and American forces had already been given the order to launch air strikes against Iraq. Our willingness to use force was again the key. Without both the resolution and ability to hit him—and hit him hard—UNSCOM and IAEA inspectors would not be back in Iraq carrying out their duties with a promise that they will be afforded full Iraqi co-operation. However, the Iraqi regime's failure last weekend to provide the documents that UNSCOM had requested is not a good start. We are watching the situation very closely daily.

Such behaviour will only delay the start of a comprehensive review of Saddam's compliance with UN resolutions. The aim of the review will be to provide a clear statement of the remaining steps that are needed for Iraq to meet its obligations and, if followed, will provide a timetable towards the lifting of sanctions, but the review cannot start until the Security Council is satisfied that Saddam is co-operating fully and unconditionally.

The military option is still in place and, as the Prime Minister has said, next time there will be no build-up and no warning. Saddam knows that we mean business. He will not be allowed to renege on the latest profession of co-operation, as he has on so many previous occasions.

Saddam should not doubt our resolve. Our forces in the Gulf remain on high alert. Like the Opposition spokesman, I take this opportunity again to put on record the country's appreciation of our forces' efforts. If we are forced to take military action, let there be absolutely no doubt about where the blame for it will lie—firmly at the door of the dictator in Baghdad.

In the Balkans, too, we have witnessed once again the need for action to avoid a catastrophe. The humanitarian disaster that could have occurred in Kosovo has been averted by the intervention of NATO and the international community. The powerful combination of diplomatic pressure and NATO's credible threat to use force has changed the situation in Kosovo for the better. However, it is only the beginning. The effects of ethnic hatred will not disappear overnight, and we must do all that we can to support the search for a political solution.

Recent events have underlined the need to get international verifiers in place, and we have responded quickly. About 60 British personnel are now in the region, and, next week, more will follow. We are also making two Canberra reconnaissance aircraft available to the NATO air verification mission. There should also be no misconceptions about who is responsible for verifiers' safety: President Milosevic is responsible. However, for added insurance, NATO is finalising plans for a small reaction force to be based in Macedonia. Britain will play its part in that force.

Events in Iraq and Kosovo are graphic demonstrations that the United Kingdom has the ability and the commitment to make a difference in this very uncertain world. I am pleased to say that our labours are bearing fruit elsewhere in the Balkans: we have seen peace return in Bosnia. We remain the second largest contributor to the NATO stabilisation force in Bosnia. Last month, I saw for myself the vital role that our service men and women are playing in helping the Bosnian people to rebuild their lives. However, we must always remember the damaging effect of overstretch on the troops who are out there serving both their country and the international community.

A key feature of our responses in the Gulf and in the Balkans is that we are acting in concert with our allies. The United Kingdom cannot and should not try to be a world policeman. Multinationality is therefore the key to our future military operations, whether under UN, NATO or European auspices, or in ad hoc coalitions. As the strategic defence review made clear, it is central to UK policy that NATO should remain the foundation of our security. We—like so many others—therefore have a fundamental interest in NATO's effectiveness and modernisation. Next year's Washington summit to celebrate NATO's 50th anniversary is an opportunity that we must grasp to signpost the way ahead for the alliance well into the new millennium.

We need a NATO that is committed both to collective defence and to its new tasks of crisis prevention and peace support. We need a NATO that remains the principal forum for consultation on security and the military organisation of choice for both Europe and north America. We need a NATO that is militarily credible across the full range of alliance missions. Moreover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said, we want a NATO that does not slam the door to new members but ensures that the alliance's military effectiveness remains its key priority. Perhaps most of all, we need a NATO that is regarded as a force for good in the world.

The most important vehicle for achieving those aims will be the alliance's new strategic concept—which must define clearly NATO's current and future purpose. The aims are achievable in Washington. NATO's inherent flexibility has enabled it, and will enable it, to adapt to a radically different world and mission for the alliance. However, part of the process of adaptation must come from the European side of the transatlantic partnership.

I should deal now with the slightly hysterical and overblown remarks of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples). As he said, hon. Members are aware that the Government have launched in the European Union a wide-ranging debate on the future of Europe, including the need to consider again the future direction of European security and defence.

This is a call for fresh thinking, not a major revision of our defence policy. Our aim is to enable the European Union to have a more united and influential voice, articulated with greater speed and coherence through the common foreign and security policy, backed up when the need arises by effective and prompt military action.

We come to the debate without pre-conceived ideas, but we have recognised certain principles which we must guard. There is no question of relinquishing national control of our armed forces, and certainly no intention to create a standing European army.

Similarly, we do not believe that it would be right for the European Commission or European Parliament to have a direct role in defence matters. Perhaps most important—I emphasise this to those on the Opposition Front Bench—we are clear that we must not undermine NATO or attempt to duplicate it. Building Europe's ability to contribute and being able to take more responsibility for our security will strengthen NATO, not undermine it. We have identified three clear, pragmatic strands that need to be addressed: political will from the Europeans; effective military capability; and the link between the two.

Europe needs a proactive foreign policy that is responsive to fast-moving situations. We cannot spirit a shared political will out of the ether, but exploiting the institutions that were created at Amsterdam is an important step in the right direction.

We also need to put muscle behind European foreign policy. The lessons from recent crises are clear. We need armed forces that are deployable, sustainable, flexible, mobile, and survivable—the qualities that were fundamental to our strategic defence review.

We shall continue to encourage our European partners to develop their military capabilities to be more responsive and more relevant to the situations that will confront us. Institutional arrangements are not at the heart of the debate that we have launched, but we need to be confident that we have an efficient and effective link between political direction and military action. That may have institutional implications, but it is premature to open the question, because it may cloud our thinking. We need to agree first what we are trying to achieve.